BOOK REVIEW: The Winnie we knew and the Winnie who is still with us
Sisonke Msimang's book sets out to make sense of a complicated life
The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela
Jonathan Ball Publishers
On April 2 2018 the controversial anti-apartheid icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died. Soon afterwards, an intense contestation began in the public sphere over what her contribution to the country was and what her legacy is.
While the traction of articles and trending affirmations such as #IAMWINNIE and #SHEDIDNOTDIESHEMULTIPLIED ensured that Winnie’s contribution was not erased, some commentary served to revive the “Lady Macdela” trope that had followed her in the new SA.
It is in the context of these polarising views of Winnie that we have Sisonke Msimang’s contribution, an intentional attempt to exalt and redeem Winnie.
“On the one hand, I felt the need to protect the memory of the woman who had done so much and suffered so greatly at the hands of apartheid. On the other, I felt deeply uncomfortable about the years that had marred her life and about the shadow that violence has cast on her political legacy. I was ashamed of her having been implicated in violence, and ashamed of my response to it,” Msimang writes.
In 11 chapters, The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela uses Winnie’s life — her upbringing in Bizana, her political conscientisation in the 1950s, her early encounter with the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg and her role in SA’s struggle for democracy — to explore the limits and possibilities of being a black revolutionary in a country and world in which women, especially black women, are penalised for bullishly knowing their own mind to the extent that they carry to their graves the social cost of being unbowed.
Aided by stylistic devices such as the use of second-person narrative, the reader can feel like a voyeur observing a conversation between Sisonke and Winnie. We ponder and nod in some parts and prod along with Sisonke as she fills in the gaps. This overall tone and present tense helps makes sense of an incredibly complicated life story and gives meaning to Winnie’s life, both intimately and factually. By the end of the book, the reward for our voyeurism is clarity that, despite being a lot of things to a lot of people, Winnie was no one’s rhetorical widow.
The introductory and closing chapters, which are written in the third person, are also important as this is where the bulk of the author’s argument, in line with didactically “resurrecting” Winnie, lies.
The most important contribution of this book is how it invites the reader to hold conflicting views and truths about Winnie without having to deal with the suffocating compulsion to irrevocably exalt or vilify her.
Winnie’s promotion of the policy of necklacing in the 1980s, as well as allegations around her implication in the deaths of Stompie Seipei, Lolo Sono and Abu Baker Asvat, contributed to her stylisation as an unrepentant sinner. Msimang engages with these political moments with delicacy and sensitivity, reminding us that apartheid violence was so much more than just white on black.
The delicate consideration of the hypocrisy of the ANC on the one hand, and the heaviness of pain and forgiveness and culpability on the other is not necessarily resolved. But it does more than leave the reader a limiting set of options. The reader can consider the complexity of acknowledging Winnie’s contribution to SA, while making space for the pain of lives that were lost and families that are reluctant or simply unable to forgive.
In the new SA, where bitterness and defensiveness continue to characterise race relations, what do active steps towards “nationbuilding” and “social cohesion” actually look like? If there is a hope for wholeness for SA, the author suggests conditions must be met. These suggestions include a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that explores the everyday violence of structural inequality, and that apartheid violators are publicly named and shamed in the name of justice.
Winnie’s life and death remind us that women during SA’s struggle for freedom were fighting against apartheid as well as patriarchy.
Msimang’s book is an important and necessary contribution to the ways in which we will continue to write about and remember Winnie Mandela.
It is an act of love, and a lesson in extending to black women the same levels of empathy that we give to everyone else. We are reminded to complicate our heroes even as we remember them, lest we take ourselves lightly historically and suffer from a mania of explaining and condemning everything and understanding nothing.